Dying Practice

 How do we die with grace?

This is a very important question for all of us.  

I am not a hospice worker but I have stayed with several friends and loved ones as they moved on, and each time I felt deeply touched and inspired by the courage and wisdom I witnessed in their passing. It was a great gift – a true opportunity for me personally. In fact, in each instance, the person who was passing has really taught me how to support them…and I just followed their lead. I have one experience in particular, that might be helpful.

Many years ago, when he was in his early 40’s, a beloved friend and member of our spiritual community, Roy, found out he had advanced lung cancer. Roy was a Japanese businessman, black belt in Karate, very capable and handsome. He had a loving wife, a daughter, and a child on the way. He handled the bad news with such dignity and often said: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” He was a bit of a micromanager. In fact, he kept a clipboard by his bed and took charge of his body, medicine and diet with precision. He was also a devoted meditator and had a lot of faith.

As his condition began to worsen, I moved to be near him and had the great honor of spending every afternoon with him the last month of his life. He had always been the president and an important administrator for our spiritual organization, Mangala Shri Bhuti. So every afternoon, we would talk about the logistics concerning the future of our teacher’s (Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche) organization and activities. He would share his vision and how to support others, and give me a lot of advice. He had so much care for others and little concern for himself.

After about 30 minutes of discussion he would say: “Okay, now let’s do dying practice.” What this meant was that we would sit quietly for about 30-40 minutes and just let go of everything as if we were leaving this world.
I have heard the Dalai Lama practices dying four times a day. I once saw him do that practice on a video. It reminded me of Roy. Doing this everyday for a month was precious – a time to step away from mundane world we often get caught up in to experience the transient gift of this human life.
It was poignant each and every time…but as his time came closer it started to feel even more powerful and “full.”

According to the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, when someone dies there are rituals and prayers that loved ones recite to support the transition for the individual and help his or her loved ones process the loss and remember the impermanence of life. We often place blessing objects on the physical body. One day, as his body was beginning to give out, Roy said, “Ok, let’s really do it.” I understood that to mean, “This is not just a practice…do it as if you were just now really going to die without holding back.”

That day he had me remove his shirt and tape the objects onto his body so that I would know exactly what to do at the time of his death. It was very intimate because Roy, being Japanese, was a bit formal and we had a relationship that felt like brother and sister. This was the first time I saw him let go of that level of formality. That day, dying practice felt like completely letting go. It was palpable and I could literally feel both of us “die” – let go – and I realized he was ready. This is also the day he finally put down his clipboard and stopped bossing everyone around.

In the last days of his life, he slowly withdrew, as if he was halfway gone. I had so much confidence in him. It all felt so natural, immediate and alive. People often describe being around someone who is passing this way. When the friends and loved ones of someone dying are willing to be present and also feel the poignancy of this special time, it is truly sacred. I guess it is a surprise because we are all so afraid of death. But many people who work in hospice and with people who have fatal illnesses (including my mother who did this work for many years), describe how people at the end of their lives very often find a peace, meaning, and freedom they never experienced before in their lives. Everything extraneous and unimportant just falls away.

I don’t think there is a template for what one should do in this situation. Every person and circumstance is different. But to pay attention and stay present is key and will determine how you respond. All kinds of creative ideas will arise if you do. Perhaps, your friend will make a request. Maybe they want to contact someone before they die, or resolve something that is unfinished. Perhaps she will want to reveal something, or share a story. Maybe you will feel a need to say a prayer (this can be a formal prayer connected with a particular tradition or just a deep aspiration from your heart), or just sit quietly with this person. At times you might want to take some quiet time for yourself…or give your friend a break. Just notice and respond.

Aside from this, I would like to recommend a beautiful and extremely popular book that I read called: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, that talks about decisions various people have made concerning how they want to live out the last part of their lives and how they would like to die. It is, by the way, a really good read…couldn’t get myself to put it down and read it in two days!

Of course, we never know when we will die, and so it is important for all of us to find a way to let go in our daily lives. This is why meditation is so important. I think if you know how to live, dying comes naturally.

And I do think that being around someone who is dying requires you really look at your own state of mind and teach you plenty about your own process.
If you do, you will know how to respond.

Read more about: